Fashion, Fashion Is Fun, Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

Appearances Matter (So Don’t File Something This Hideous With The Court)

Keith Lee

Everyone is familiar with the saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression. We size people up at a glance. People like to think that they take time to adequately weigh decisions, but in reality we often rely on “thin-slicing,” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink (affiliate link):

“Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our unconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. The unconscious works by sifting through the situation in front of you, parsing out irrelevant data and homing in on what really matters.”

What this means is that we are constantly making micro-decisions at a subconscious level about the world around us all the time. Now, that doesn’t mean we are always making good decisions or judgments, but we are making them. Which is why lawyers need to care about how they appear — in person and in print.

And from a filed Answer in a lawsuit that a reader sent me, it’s a lesson that one lawyer needs to learn….

I’m a proponent of “dressing up” at the office. For all you Biglaw types — guess what? Solo/small firm lawyers get to wear what they want everyday! Woo! Jeans and flip-flops for everyone.

Not really — most solos wear a suit everyday anyway. Why?  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck… it’s likely a duck. Clients expect lawyers to look a certain way. A priest has a collarino, a doctor a white coat – a lawyer has a suit. Our brains immediately categorize people based on their appearance. Someone in a car-wash uniform = low-status individual. Someone in a suit = high-status individual. When you see someone in a suit, your mind automatically categorizes that person as having some weight or authority behind them. It’s automatic, years of conditioning ingrained in you by culture and the media. As a solo or new lawyer, you likely need that implied authority. A suit is a shield, albeit a cloth one, that can help ward off insecurities you may feel about yourself. It lets people know who you are and what you are about.

But sometimes the first time you “appear” to opposing counsel or a judge is not in person, but through text. Written advocacy has increasingly become the primary form of advocacy. Time in court is slim. A complaint, answer, motion, and brief has a high likelihood of being your “first impression” to all parties and judge in a case.  So you need to make sure your written advocacy has a “sharp” appearance. It needs to be clear, easy-to-read, and free from errors. Beyond that, you can be selective in fonts, spacing, margins, headings, kerning… the list goes on and on.

What you don’t need to do is file something that looks like this:

That is offensive to the eyes. Can you imagine receiving that from an attorney in a case?! Can you imagine the judge’s reaction?! Here was your one chance at a first impression and you used Bradley Hand (I think) in a filing. Good grief.

UPDATE (2/8/2014, 11:00 a.m.): Actually, it might be Segoe Print, according to former ATL columnist Jay Shepherd (who knows a lot about fonts). For a very detailed discussion of fonts, check out the Seventh Circuit’s Requirements and Suggestions for Typography in Briefs and Other Papers.

Let me help you out. The easiest thing to do is to just go buy Typography For Lawyers (affiliate link) by Matthew Butterick. It’s an all-encompassing guide to properly formatting legal filings in the most readable and aesthetically pleasing way possible. It will help you choose an appropriate font and instruct you on the use of spacing and layout. If you don’t have time to wait for a book and wait to improve the appearances of your briefs right this very second, then I would suggest that you look at Texas appellate lawyer Kendall Gray’s Goldilocks Brief:

  • Use a book font like Century Schoolbook for body text. Footnotes are one or two points smaller.
  • For contrast and readability, I use Helvetica for headings
  • Double spacing is not required in our trial courts, but a judge might object to single spacing, thinking I was trying to put one over on him or her with excessive length. So I use 1.5 line spacing. It still looks fine but more readable.
  • Margins are 1.5 inches on the side to shorten the line length.
  • The wider margins and shorter line length and book font all combine (I hope) to make a very readable product

Gray has an example up on his blog here.

Take the time to care about the appearance and layout of your written advocacy. The substance of what you write is of course of what truly matters, but with just a little bit of effort you can make your filings appear clean, professional, and easy to read.

Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at or on Twitter at @associatesmind.

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